How 150 years of Hawaiian history and social change unfolded at Mills College
By Dawn Cunningham ’85
You wouldn’t be wrong to call Mills a Californian institution—it is, after all, one of the state’s oldest colleges. But there’s another state whose history is equally intertwined with that of Mills: Hawai‘i. In the late 19th century, Native Hawaiian aristocrats studied side-by-side at Mills with daughters of the islands’ foreign power elite. Since then, many of the historical forces—from intermarriage to imperialism—that have shaped the unique culture of Hawai‘i have been reflected in the tides of students that have passed through Mills.
The link between Mills and Hawai‘i was forged by the college’s namesakes, missionaries Cyrus and Susan Mills. Before moving to California in 1865, they worked as educators on the island of O‘ahu for four years. At the time, the kingdom of Hawai‘i tenuously maintained its sovereignty by keeping the expansionist interests of Britain, France, and the United States balanced against each other. Its rulers—descended from Kamehameha the Great, who unified the islands—were supported by a diverse group of cabinet ministers, including educated Native Hawaiian ali‘i (nobles or chiefs) as well as Europeans and Americans.
In the nine decades since Captain James Cook’s arrival in the islands, infectious diseases introduced by European sailors, merchants, planters, missionaries, and others had decimated the Native Hawaiian population. Landowners increasingly sought imported labor—from China beginning in the 1850s and Japan beginning in the 1860s—for their sugar plantations and ranches. Though highly stratified, Hawaiian society was already beginning to develop the racial mix it is known for today.
In Hawai‘i, Cyrus Mills served as president of Punahou School, founded in 1841 to educate the children of missionaries and other foreign residents. Susan Mills, the first woman on Punahou’s faculty, taught botany, chemistry, English, and calisthenics, among other subjects. The couple was highly regarded and forged close friendships with the white elites whose children they taught as well as with ali‘i. One of these, the high chiefess Lili‘uokalani, was tutored by Cyrus and Susan at Punahou, though officially Native Hawaiians were not allowed to enroll.
In 1865, Cyrus and Susan Mills relocated to California and purchased the Young Ladies’ Seminary in Benicia. They brought with them a deep personal attachment to Hawai‘i as well as the loyalty of powerful island families. In fact, as soon as Cyrus and Susan took control, the Seminary enrolled its first students ever from the islands: Annie and Helen Aldrich, daughters of a wealthy banker who was a cousin of Lili‘uokalani’s Italian-American husband, John Owen Dominis; Clara and Marion Rowell, whose father was a missionary and mother a Mount Holyoke College alumna, like Susan Mills; and Mary Rice, daughter of a Punahou teacher who had become a sugar plantation manager.
Throughout the 19th century, Hawai‘i (especially Punahou School) sent the Seminary a steady stream of students, despite the time and expense of travelling to California. A steamship took about a week, and the round trip fare was equal to 25 percent of an average American salary. Yet alternative options for college-bound women were even farther away, on the East Coast. As a result, the Seminary had more pupils from Hawai‘i than from any other country or state save California itself. Many of their parents were friends of the Millses and shared their Congregationalist beliefs. Although the majority were haole (white) students like the first group in 1865–66, the Seminary also drew a number of notable hapa haole (half white) students who were descendants of ali‘i and identified strongly with Native Hawaiian culture.
The first of these was Emma Kaʻilikapuolono Metcalf, the daughter of chiefess Ka‘ilikapuolono and American engineer/photographer Theophilus Metcalf. Emma studied at Punahou during the Millses’ time there and was fluent in Hawaiian, English, French, and German. She briefly attended the Young Ladies’ Seminary in 1866 but her studies were cut short by the death of her father, and she returned home. There she married twice, both times to men who, like her, were ali‘i. She bore nine children and adopted several others. Meanwhile, she pursued a remarkable career: serving as lady-in-waiting to the queen; as curator of the Hawaiian National Museum and Government Library; and as a commissioner of private ways and water rights, a position in which she functioned as a water court judge, using her knowledge of traditional Hawaiian law. She came to be considered one of the foremost authorities on Hawaiian history and culture.
In 1871, Cyrus and Susan Mills moved the Seminary to its present location in Oakland, California, where it became known as Mills College. In 1878, they welcomed their first royal guest to campus: Lili‘uokalani, who had recently become crown princess and heir apparent to her older brother, King Kalākaua. The princess had tea with Susan and toured the College, where she observed the “perfect curriculum for young ladies—classical, intellectual, and full of social decorum.” She began to dream of establishing a similar women’s college in Hawai‘i.
In addition to Cyrus and Susan, Lili‘uokalani’s friends in the Bay Area included her husbands’ relatives, the Aldrich sisters, whose family had moved to Oakland, and Mrs. John H. Coney, also known as Laura Amoy Kekuakapuokalani Ena. The daughter of a chiefess and a Chinese merchant, Mrs. Coney was living in the city while two of her hapa haole daughters, Clarissa and Mary, studied at Mills.
More royal visits to Mills followed—as did students. In 1881, King Kalākaua visited the Bay Area at the tail end of a world tour and was guest of honor at a tea on campus. Among the students from Hawai‘i at the time were Ella and Mary Bailey, who descended from ali‘i of Maui and a missionary artist. The year before, Phoebe and Mary Dowsett, two sisters from a prominent part-Hawaiian ranching family, attended Mills (four more of their sisters would follow in later years). Phoebe was described by Isobel Field, stepdaughter of Robert Louis Stevenson, in her memoir: “The Hawaiian strain was evident in her dark eyes and musical voice, and she had that trait as peculiar to the islanders as thrift in the Scotch… generosity.”
But despite the welcomed presence of such students, some in the campus community, as in American society at large, looked down on full-blooded Native Hawaiians—even royalty. Elias Olan James, biographer of Cyrus and Susan Mills, wrote that during Kalākaua’s visit, “one Southern lady, all aquiver to meet a real king, was terribly put out and bolted from the line when she found he was a colored man.”
At the time, racism against Native Hawaiians was pervasive among white Americans in the United States and in Hawai‘i. After visiting US President Zachary Taylor in Washington, DC, in 1850, Prince Alexander Liholiho (later King Kamehameha IV) was almost kicked out of his train car to New York by a conductor who, he wrote, “took me for somebody’s servant just because I had a darker skin than he had…. The first time that I have ever received such treatment, not in England or France or anywhere else.” At home in the islands, Hawaiian rulers had to contend with American expatriates who not only conspired to usurp economic and political power but, according to historian Gavan Daws, proclaimed that they “could ‘never endure’ being ruled by a king who was not white.”.
For the most part, at Mills, the ali‘i were exempt from the explicit racism directed toward commoners. Susan Mills wrote of Lili‘uokalani, “She had the marvelous bearing of a high chiefess, but she far surpassed her race in intelligence.” In an 1874 issue of the Mills Quarterly, then a publication of the senior class, an unnamed contributor described a visit to Hawai‘i, admitting that the natives “remind you less of savages than you had thought they would” while contrasting them to the “young, handsome, and well-educated” king at the time, Lunalilo. The ali‘i-class students who came to Mills aroused similar admiration from some of their peers. Charmain Kittredge London, writer and wife of novelist Jack London, studied at the College in the late 1880s. In her book Jack London and Hawaii, she fondly remembered “Mills College, where I met and loved my first Hawaiian girl.”
Princess Lili‘uokalani visited the campus once again, in 1887, this time with Queen Kapi‘olani, Kalākaua’s wife. They were on their way to Britain for the jubilee celebration of Queen Victoria. Among their entourage was James Washington Lonoikauoalii McGuire, who wrote a chronicle of their travels in Hawaiian. Of Mills, he said:
“Everything we saw was beautiful. There was this schoolhouse, deep in a valley, adorned with climbing roses and with fuchsia…. [T]he winding pathways that led to the building were large and appeared boundless because of the springy grass which spread to their edges, like velvet cloth. Upon our arrival at the schoolhouse, the royal persons were welcomed by Mrs. Mills, the principal, and she conducted us all into the classroom and there the royal persons were introduced to the Hawaiians, the Misses Helen Wilder, Ricky Nolte, May Cummins, and Ida Merseberg…..”
In fact, the queen and crown princess would have already been acquainted with most of these students as well as two other Dowsett sisters who were also enrolled at Mills at the time.
May was the daughter of a chiefess and a hapa haole noble, John Adams Kuakini Cummins, who served as King Kalākaua’s minister of foreign affairs and helped him revive Hawaiian cultural practices, such as the hula, that had been suppressed by the missionaries. The Cummins family often entertained royalty—local and foreign—at their estate in Waimanalo, on O‘ahu. Following the Native Hawaiian adoption custom called hānai, May later raised as her own a cousin’s daughter, Mamo. In the 1930s, they moved to Los Angeles, where Mamo became an actor and played opposite Clark Cable in Mutiny on the Bounty.
Ida Merseberg’s father was a musician who immigrated to Hawai‘i from Prussia to lead the King’s Band; her mother was an ali‘i. Friedericke (Ricky) Nolte later married McGuire, the Irish-Hawaiian chronicler.
Helen Wilder was the only one of the group to come from an elite, pure haole family. Her father was Samuel Wilder, a shipping magnate and minister of the interior under King Kalākaua, and her grandfather was Gerrit Judd, a physician, missionary, and cabinet minister under King Kamehameha III. Helen, however, was openly defiant of the norms of her social class. After Mills, she helped build the Hawaiian Humane Society, which was then part of the police force, and in 1897 was appointed a “humane officer” with the authority to arrest animal abusers. An article in a mainland paper reported:
“She is probably the only woman police officer in the world.… She is simply a plain woman with plain ideas, no fuss or fizzle, believing herself on an equality with man.… She doesn’t care a fig for dances, teas or the dilly dallying of society. She snaps her fingers in the face of conventionality without so much as a ‘beg pardon.’ She dons a short skirt, a shirt waist, a military hat and rides her horse with the daring of a vaquero.”
In this role, she hired a local Chinese man, Chang Apana, to investigate crimes against animals. Her support helped Apana become an officer of the Honolulu Police Department and the inspiration for the character of Charlie Chan in Earl Derr Biggers’ detective novels.
Helen generated further notoriety in 1899, when she got married and then promptly sailed alone to San Francisco to fulfill her dream of enjoying a groomless honeymoon. A few years later, after divorcing, she moved to Santa Cruz County in California where she lived the rest of her life, much of it with a long-time woman companion, though she took a short break to serve in the Red Cross in Russia during World War I.
The last decade of the 19th century brought historic changes to Hawai‘i. Lili‘uokalani became queen after her brother’s death in 1891, but two years later a group of American businessmen and landowners—many of whom had been advisors to Hawaiian rulers—staged a coup d’etat against her with the backing of the US military. They proclaimed Hawai‘i a republic and appointed Sanford Dole, brother-in-law of Mills alumna Clara Rowell Dole, as president. They placed the queen under house arrest and forced her to abdicate; her many plans for the improvement of her kingdom, such as establishing a women’s college, came to an end. Despite her efforts to convince US Presidents Grover Cleveland and William McKinley to restore the monarchy, Hawai‘i was annexed as an American territory in 1898.
After the annexation, Mills College saw a fourfold increase in the number of students from the islands—from about a half dozen to 20 per year—an effect that lasted until the end of Susan Mills’s life in 1912 (Cyrus died in 1884). Susan was well known for her indulgence of the islanders on campus. Anna Rice, daughter of a coup leader, matriculated in 1900 and later recalled, “Mrs. Mills was particularly good to the girls from Hawai‘i, allowing them only to cut flowers from the garden and to have a warm bath everyday—they could not have lived without it!—though the others bathed only once a week on schedule.”
The boost in admission of students from the islands was no doubt aided by Mills alumnae. The White and Gold, as the College’s student magazine was then titled, reported in 1902 that “the Branch Alumnae Association of Honolulu has taken the initiative in a movement which we hope may become general”—a movement to form Mills clubs across the nation.
In 1903, students from Hawai‘i organized the Kapi‘olani Club on campus, named not after Queen Kapi‘olani but rather after her great aunt, the high chiefess Kapi‘olani, one of the first converts to Christianity in the early 19th century. Members included hapa haole students Zillah Kahalepuna Hart and Caroline and Clara Shipman; Violet Damon, from a missionary family that had been close to Cyrus and Susan Mills for three generations; and Helen Aldrich, a niece of the Helen Aldrich who attended the Seminary in 1865. Club gatherings featured Hawaiian songs, feasts of poi and sweet potatoes, and fundraising for scholarships. By 1909, the club had raised enough money to pay for construction of the Julia Morgan-designed Kapi‘olani Cottage, which still stands today. Chiefess Kapi‘olani is also memorialized in the campus road named for her.
In 1903–04, Zillah, Caroline, and Clara published a series of literary pieces in The White and Gold, including translations of traditional mele (chants or songs), retellings of Hawaiian legends, and stories reflecting their own experiences on the islands. In stark contrast to the Hawai‘i travelogue published in the Mills Quarterly in 1874, these students cast Native Hawaiian commoners as heroes. Their interest in legends may have been inspired by former Mills student Emma Metcalf Nakuina, who had been publishing Hawaiian myths in English for the cultural edification of non-Hawaiians—a ground-breaking approach at the time.
In the first decade of the 20th century, non-Hawaiians were the majority of the island territory’s population. Native Hawaiians made up just one-fifth—their numbers had dwindled to less than 40,000, approximately 10 percent of the estimated population before Captain Cook’s arrival. Japanese were the largest ethnic group at over 40 percent, Caucasians roughly equaled Native Hawaiians in number, and Chinese made up less than 15 percent. Filipinos, currently the largest Asian ethnic group in Hawai‘i, and Koreans had just begun to arrive as plantation workers.
The increasing presence of Asians in the islands, however, was not represented among students at Mills for many decades. Because most Asians arrived in Hawai’i as laborers, few attained the wealth to afford a mainland education. In addition, US laws prevented many residents of Chinese ancestry from becoming citizens or travelling to the mainland. An exception of sorts had come with the first post-annexation class in 1898. Among these students were Martha and Melanie Afong, whose father was Chun Afong, a Chinese businessman who had become the first millionaire in the islands. Their mother was Julia Fayerweather, a hapa haole who had been raised alongside Kalākaua. The Afong daughters (12 in all) were society-page stars in Hawai‘i and West Coast newspapers because of their stunning looks and their father’s equally stunning promise of a $350,000 dowry for each—an amount equivalent to $10 million today. Just before Martha’s marriage, the Los Angeles Herald described her as “a clever conversationalist, well informed, and possessed of charming wit. In person she is of stately bearing, having the appearance of one who considers herself of consequence.” Yet the Herald found it noteworthy that “The parents of Lieut. Dougherty are in nowise disappointed in the fact that their son is going to wed a maiden who is half Chinese….” At the time, California law discouraged marriage between whites and Asians.
Another three decades passed before the first two Asian students who were not part haole came to Mills from Hawai‘i, in 1934. One was Irma Tam Soong, MA ’35, who later wrote a book about her experiences living under Japanese occupation in China during World War II and established the Hawai‘i Chinese History Center in Honolulu. The other was Fudeko Tamate ’38, a Japanese American woman who returned to Hawai‘i to teach.
Gerry Wong Ching ’57 points out that Asian Americans on the islands faced discriminatory policies even after Hawai‘i became a state in 1959. “My husband was one of the first two Asians allowed into the prestigious Pacific Club, and I was the first Chinese woman invited to join the Junior League in Hawai‘i in 1968,” she says. Punahou—which had remained an important feeder school for Mills and the preferred school for the descendants of missionary and plantation families—limited Asian Americans to 10 percent of the student body.
Nevertheless, a number of Asian American graduates of Punahou made their way to Mills. Betty Chu Wo ’46, who led alumnae in the Hawai‘i Mills Club for many decades before her death last year, was one of them. Gerry was another. Once at Mills, she became the first person of color to be elected president of the Associated Students of Mills College. She also participated in the students’ Hawai‘i club. “One year we laid out a big luau in the Student Union,” she says. “Our parents sent food, and we even hired a Hawaiian family in Oakland to build an imu [underground oven].” Although California and Hawai‘i were linked by passenger air service after World War II, Gerry recalls that it was still a nine-hour flight and traveling was a special occasion: “I used to get dressed up for the trip. I wore a silk shantung dress, high heels, a hat, and gloves.” She adds, mischievously, “And when we landed I had fur on my tongue from having drunk too much!”
I joined the transpacific pilgrimage from Hawai‘i to Mills in 1981, and my sister, Rosanne Cunningham ’90, joined five years later. Much had changed by the 1980s—the flight took less than six hours, for one. Barriers to Asian American achievement in the state had been torn down: our governor, lieutenant governor, and both US senators were all of Japanese descent. I am a half-Filipina hapa haole; other Mills students from Hawai‘i in my years were of Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Native Hawaiian, and Caucasian descent. We came from a mix of public and private schools.
Yet many legacies of the old Mills-Hawai‘i relationship have remained. In the past 10 years, more students have come from Punahou than from any other high school in the state (the combined Kamehameha Schools, for students of Native Hawaiian ancestry, are the runner-up). Alumnae in the Hawai’i Mills Club, now led by Lyn Flanigan ’65, still help welcome newly admitted students. On campus, the Mills ‘Ohana Club (‘ohana means family) draws islander students together for Hawaiian food and company.
Mills has continued to attract students who are the intellectual—and sometimes genetic—heirs of 19th-century ali‘i such as Emma Metcalf Beckley Nakuina. “Mills helped shape my identity, my perspective on who I am as a Native Hawaiian woman,” says D. Kapua‘ala Sproat ’95, who grew up on Kaua‘i and chose Mills partly because of its historical connection to the islands. Today she is an associate professor of law and directs the Ka Huli Ao Center for Excellence in Native Hawaiian Law at the University of Hawai‘i. She also serves as legal counsel at Earthjustice, where she developed a special interest in water law—like Emma—and worked on litigation to return diverted stream flows to community uses, including traditional Hawaiian agriculture and aquaculture.
Kailani Yamanoha ’16, a nursing student, is Emma’s great-great-granddaughter. Kailani grew up in Northern California, where her family was active in Santa Rosa’s Hawaiian community (today, 40 percent of people of Native Hawaiian ancestry live on the US mainland). She spent summers with family on O‘ahu, where her grandmother would recount tales from the family’s history. “I came to Mills because of the strong ties to Hawai‘i and my ‘ohana,” she says. “There’s a deeper history of Native Hawaiian students at Mills than at any other Bay Area university.”
While this history is a source of pride for many Hawai‘i alumnae, Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner ’10 speaks up for other islanders who have had little access to higher education. Raised in Hawai‘i but born in the Marshall Islands (her mother is president of the island nation), Kathy is a poet and environmental activist who gained worldwide acclaim for her 2014 poetry performance at the United Nations Climate Summit in New York. She has also addressed the struggles of Marshallese and other Micronesian immigrants in Hawai‘i, where more than half of Marshallese live in poverty. Her poem “Lessons from Hawai‘i” enumerates the everyday ways that other island residents belittle Micronesians and seek to exclude them from resources such as healthcare. “No aloha for Micronesians in Hawai‘i” is lesson #5 in the poem.
The notion of aloha—of living with a spirit of good feelings toward others, of compassion—is so essential to Hawaiian values that it is enshrined in the statutes of the state. But Mills alumnae and students show that aloha can’t be taken for granted. They also understand how much can be gained as we strive, with aloha, to build a more welcoming, inclusive community on the islands and on campus.